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What’s the point of increased U.S. pressure on Iran? Not even the Trump administration seems sure

Does Trump, as he reiterated on Thursday, really want to renegotiate the nuclear treaty with Iran? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton seem more focused on regime change.

National Security Adviser John Bolton
National Security Adviser John Bolton seems more focused on regime change in Iran.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

It’s easy to imagine any number of bad things happening as a result of the sharp increase in tensions between the United States and Iran. Those threats are real, and serious. But it’s also possible to imagine a less-dire scenario that’s not just than an exercise in wishful thinking.

If it happens, it won’t completely eliminate the danger, and it won’t feel like a victory for anyone. It would look something like the situation that existed before President Obama negotiated his agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear program.  

The United States recently dispatched an aircraft carrier group, bombers and Patriot missiles to the Persian Gulf region. It has designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization and ended sanctions waivers for some of the biggest customers for Iranian oil. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Iraq last week because of concerns Iranian allies could launch attacks on the roughly 5,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

Iran has continued adhering to the nuclear agreement, despite President Trump’s decision a year ago to pull out and reimpose sanctions. But its economy is in dismal shape. On Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would start stockpiling nuclear materials enriched to a low level instead of shipping them out of the country as the agreement requires. He gave other signatories to the agreement 60 days to ease the pressure on Iran.

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With this level of tension, there are a lot of ways things could go badly wrong, even if neither side really intends it. With that much firepower concentrated in the Persian Gulf (through which 30 percent of the world’s sea-borne oil trade passes), very cool heads will be needed to avoid a military confrontation. Elsewhere, Iranian allies might indeed attack those U.S. troops in Iraq. Israel is concerned about Hezbollah missile attacks. Most dramatic and destabilizing would be a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

No one seems quite clear on exactly the point of this increased U.S. pressure. That probably includes Iran, and possibly the Trump administration itself. As in so many other foreign policy areas, consistency isn’t this administration’s strong suit. Does Trump, as he reiterated on Thursday, really want to renegotiate the nuclear treaty with Iran? Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton seem more focused on regime change. Former neocon Max Boot worries that Bolton is trying to goad Iran into military action. Or, perhaps there is no real expectation of a revolution and no broader purpose than making Iran suffer, hoping its leaders will be preoccupied with domestic unrest and think twice about foreign adventures.

As for wishful thinking, don’t expect a new “grand bargain” between Iran and the United States. Chatham House senior Fellow Sanam Vakil surveyed 75 experts and found that less than 20 percent think that’s even possible. You might hope fed up Iranians revolt and throw out the mullahs. Here, courtesy of the BBC, is a quick look at how bad the Iranian economy is. Sanctions don’t usually lead to revolutions, however, and Iran has been able to keep a handle on unrest.  Or maybe Trump just gets tired of Bolton and his saber rattling? Reports indicate Trump feels misled by Bolton’s argument that heavy U.S. pressure would bring down Venezuela’s government. Even so, it’s hard to imagine Trump suddenly becoming buddies with Ayatollah Khamenei. That’s reserved for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Still, there is a way in which North Korea might prove instructive. It has to do with Trump’s tendency to make maximum demands, and pull back when that doesn’t work. It took Trump little more than a year to go from “fire and fury” threats against North Korea to declaring that he and Kim “fell in love.”

You do have to wonder why — as they’ve pointed out repeatedly — the Iranians would negotiate with Trump, given that he threw out the last agreement, and that it’s not clear who actually is steering U.S. policy. Plus, moderates such as Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were burned badly by their pursuit of the now-defunct deal with Obama.

Maybe a new deal isn’t possible now, and maybe Iran doesn’t want one. But it wouldn’t be the dumbest idea to at least express an interest in talks to lessen the risk of a major miscalculation and to probe for Trump’s bottom line. North Korea’s Kim obviously thinks the president can be played. Iran could try something similar: slow-walk negotiations while trying to determine whether Trump can be enticed into taking something far less than he has demanded.

Even without reopening the Obama-era deal, Iran’s best bet still could be to hunker down. That will be tricky. The economy is getting worse, and unlike North Korea, Iran has a lot of domestic constituencies. Hardliners are having an “I told you so” moment about relations with the U.S., and will want to prove Iran can’t be pushed around. Some provocative actions are likely, but they could be calibrated in an effort to avoid a harsh U.S. response.

It’s possible — perhaps likely — that we’ll find ourselves with no nuclear agreement, Iran enriching uranium at a level below what’s needed for a weapon, and proxy skirmishes throughout the region — all in an atmosphere of deep underlying suspicion. Uncomfortable, but also very familiar.